A passenger plane flying from Auckland to Shanghai was forced to turn back after some five hours in the air because it did not have permission to land, officials said Sunday.

Passengers said the captain informed them mid-flight the Air New Zealand plane was not allowed to land in China and would have to go back.

"Midway through our flight, the pilot informs us that Chinese authorities had not given this plane permission to land, so we needed to turn around. A permitting issue, supposedly," one passenger, Eric Hundman, told the New Zealand Herald.

"I would be stunned if Air NZ had allowed a plane full of passengers to take off without being quite sure they would be able to land it in Shanghai," the assistant professor at New York University Shanghai added.

The airline said in a statement that "a technicality meant the particular aircraft operating this service did not have Chinese regulatory authority to land in China".

After returning to Auckland, the airline texted passengers to say the flight had been rescheduled and would depart Sunday night.

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